Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

Murder by the Book

Claire Harman

Murder By the Book combines a thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time.

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From the acclaimed biographer--the fascinating, little-known story of a Victorian-era murder that rocked literary London, leading Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Queen Victoria herself to wonder: Can a novel kill?

In May 1840, Lord William Russell, well known in London's highest social circles, was found with his throat cut. The brutal murder had the whole city talking. The police suspected Russell's valet, Courvoisier, but the evidence was weak. The missing clue, it turned out, lay in the unlikeliest place: what Courvoisier had been reading. In the years just before the murder, new printing methods had made books cheap and abundant, the novel form was on the rise, and suddenly everyone was reading. The best-selling titles were the most sensational true-crime stories. Even Dickens and Thackeray, both at the beginning of their careers, fell under the spell of these tales--Dickens publicly admiring them, Thackeray rejecting them. One such phenomenon was William Harrison Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard, the story of an unrepentant criminal who escaped the gallows time and again. When Lord William's murderer finally confessed his guilt, he would cite this novel in his defense. Murder By the Book combines this thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time. It is superbly researched, vividly written, and captivating from first to last.

Advance Galley Reviews

In 1840, Lord William Russell, a minor aristocrat, "aged and respected", was discovered with his throat slashed, lying on a blood-soaked mattress. These were unsettling, challenging times in London. There was "...the change taking place in the disposition of the common people toward 'all men in power'." "If a person like Lord William was not safe in his bed than who was?" The working class in London was becoming more literate. The latest novels, often sensational works of fiction "...glamorized vice and made heroes of criminals...". New novels were often serialized in magazines. "Felon Literature" made atrocious crime romantic and glamorous. One such novel was "Jack Sheppard" written in 1839 by William Harrison Ainsworth. The real Jack Sheppard was an 18th Century thief, burglar and pickpocket who escaped from prison numerous times before going to the gallows. Ainsworth's novel depicted diminutive Jack as a hero of sorts. Stage versions of Ainsworth's novel were many and varied. The better dramatizations were viewed by the "educated classes" despite "the very scenery of revolting spectacles and deeds". Different versions existed since copyright laws did not protect authors from plagiarists. Many Londoners crowded into theaters again and again to view the exploits of the notorious Jack. On to the death of Lord William Russell. Was this crime in any way connected to the "Jack Sheppard phenomenon"? Who slashed Lord William's carotid artery yet left no blood splatter on the walls or curtains? Why were few valuables stolen? Surprisingly, the sensational crime was closely followed, and updates given to Lord Melbourne to be relayed to a young Queen Victoria! "Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London" by Claire Harman was a fascinating, thoroughly researched tome discussing a "moral panic", the effect of a form of entertainment as a catalyst for heinous crime committed by impressionable juveniles. Thank you First to Read-Penguin Random House and Claire Harman for the opportunity to read and review "Murder by the Book".


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